The model for our modern Thanksgiving was a celebration that happened in 1621, at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The Wampanoag Native Americans helped the pilgrims cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation.
Giving and gratitude was a way of life for Native Americans, not just a special celebration of safe passage. Their generosity was not just kindness but initiation. They were inducting the mostly English settlers in a new way to be on this Earth—participating in every aspect of life as if it is sacred. Their pipe ceremony was a form of prayer like the pilgrim’s Lord’s Prayer. It portrayed and invoked the link between Earth and Heaven. Sharing the pipe invited participation in a great Truth–a Truth that cannot be frozen into human words because its origin is beyond us and because it is always in movement. Life is offered to us and always moving. The Native Americans were showing the pilgrims that we are meant to be part of a greater Whole.
Yet the pilgrims didn’t get it. They so, so, so didn’t get it. In 1764, when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, he explained that the already old expression “Indian gift” meant “a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” Over the years, the term became more degraded. An “India giver” was someone who gave a gift only to ask for it back. The European settlers and their descendants just could not understand that gifts are meant to keep moving because life moves. They could not understand that we are part of a sacred web of life that is a constant state of circulation, exchange, giving and receiving. They took what was meant to be received and given forward. They stopped what was meant to move. Enormous harm was done.
This Thanksgiving, if you wish, we can have an intention to begin again. With every breath, life is given. With every breath, an invitation is offered. The Buddha, who would certainly have been regarded as a brother by Native Americans, taught that “dana” or generosity was the first quality to cultivate. Generosity is opening to life and to our own deeper possibilities. Generosity arises when we are open to receive, when we are willing to step out of our isolation to participate in a larger life.
When we are open even for a few moments, we begin to see that receiving and giving are inextricably related, like breathing in and breathing out. Generosity is an antidote to fear and aversion and hatred. It is a way out of the darkness of isolation.
The prospect of coming out of isolation, of taking off our protective armor and joining the dance can feel terrifying. We may not feel safe for good reason. We may have been hurt very deeply. And/or we may have harmed others. We even may feel that we have committed crimes or trespasses (including thought crimes) that cannot be forgiven, at least not easily.
just as the pilgrims committed crimes and trespasses against those who welcomed them and gave them gifts, including the gift of life and the understanding that life is a circle.
Consider this: a Native American leader I spoke with last year told me that the early settlers were forgiven long ago. This amazed me. Slowly, I realized that those who understand generosity deeply understand that life gives forward—we are each given life, given breath, given possibilities we are invited to give on. The Truth is forward giving, forgiving. This Thanksgiving, if you wish, give yourself the gift of becoming still. Give yourself the gift of kind attention. Notice the giving and receiving in the breathing. This Thanksgiving, join us as we begin again, to notice what was missed before.